Shoulder Pain and Surgery

There are three bones that make up your shoulder: the collar bone (clavicle), the shoulder blade (scapula) and the upper arm bone (humerus), which are controlled by a number of associated muscles, ligaments and four major tendons, called the rotator cuff tendons. Your shoulder joint is a ball-and-socket joint that allows for a wide range of movement, making it the most mobile joint in your body.

This page is intended for informational purposes only and should not replace advice that your relevant health professional would give you.

Symptoms of shoulder pain

Rotator cuff disorders

Common symptoms include pain when you move your arm above your head or away from your body, pain on the front and side of your shoulder or pain and discomfort at night. You may also experience a clicking or snapping noise when you move your shoulder.

Shoulder instability

People with suspected shoulder instability often describe symptoms that feel like the ball of the shoulder has come out of its joint, or feelings of tingling, weakness or numbness in the shoulder. Symptoms can also include a clicking or snapping sensation when you move your shoulder.

Shoulder dislocation

With a dislocated shoulder, symptoms can include severe pain, muscle spasm, limited movement and the arm looking visibly out of place.

Frozen shoulder

Two of the main symptoms of frozen shoulder include pain and persistent stiffness. Mild symptoms of frozen shoulder have been described as an ache in the shoulder causing pain when reaching for something to severe symptoms where movement of the shoulder is severely limited.

Causes of shoulder pain

There can be many causes of shoulder pain, often brought on by sudden, high-stress movements in sports such as tennis or swimming, or repeat movements in activities like rowing or weight lifting. Shoulder tendons are also susceptible to wear through the natural aging process and the reduction of circulation to the tendons.

There are a number of reasons why you might be experiencing shoulder pain, including:

  • Frozen shoulder – also known as adhesive capsulitis, frozen shoulder is when a flexible tissue that surrounds the shoulder joint (called a capsule) becomes inflamed and restricts the range of movement in the shoulder.
  • Rotator cuff disorders – The rotator cuff tendons can suffer from tears, as well as tendonitis and bursitis (the inflammation of tendons or the fluid-filled bursa sacs found over the joints between the tendons and bones) from overuse.
  • Shoulder instability – Although the shoulder joint is very moveable, shoulder instability can occur when the ball part of the shoulder joint does not move correctly in the socket. This can range from a slipping to a full shoulder dislocation.
  • Acromioclavicular joint disorders – The acromioclavicular joint is at the top of the shoulder and the ligaments can suffer from tearing or stretching.
  • Osteoarthritis – A degenerative disease that can affect the shoulder joints.
  • Broken or fractured bones – Injury that breaks or fractures the bone, such as the humerus or collarbone.


Usually a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) or Computerised Tomography (CT) scan will be used to diagnose the problem within the shoulder but it could require an arthroscopy procedure to treat the problem. Arthroscopy, also called keyhole surgery, is a procedure that has greatly reduced the inpatient and recovery times for shoulder treatments.

After making up to four small incisions around the affected joint, surgeons will insert a small telescope (called an arthroscope) attached to a video camera into one of the cuts to visually examine the area. They are then able to place surgical instruments through the other to treat any problems inside the shoulder. The operation usually takes around forty minutes and in most cases performed under a general anaesthetic.